“I Gave Birth to Too Many Children”: Population Control and Repression in Xinjiang

The Chinese government is currently pursuing a campaign of repression against Muslim ethnic minorities in the region of Xinjiang. Prompted by fears of terrorism and separatism, the roughly three-year-old campaign has reportedly involved surveillance, imprisonment, and psychological and physical torture. The campaign may also involve coercive population control, including sterilization and abortion.

Unrest in an Important Region

Located in China’s far west, Xinjiang is home to more than 20 million people, including both minorities such as the Uighurs and Kazakhs and members of the Han Chinese majority. The region is important because of its oil, coal, and natural gas, as well as its border with Central Asia. Xinjiang is crucial to China’s infrastructure development project known as the “Belt and Road Initiative.” Its importance gives the authorities a strong interest in maintaining control over Xinjiang.[1] 

Threats to government control arose in 2009, when protests by the Uighurs against discriminatory treatment led to rioting in the regional capital Urumqi that killed 200 people. Further acts of violence and even terrorism by Uighurs occurred in the following years, leading the government to retaliate in 2017 with regulations for “de-radicalization” and the current repression campaign.[2] That year, Chinese President Xi Jinping commented that “Xinjiang is in an active period of terrorist activities, intense struggle against separatism and painful intervention to treat this.”[3]

Widespread Detention?

A picture of the campaign has emerged from a mixture of reporting on the scene, the testimony of people who claim to have been imprisoned by the authorities or to have missing relatives, and official documents available online. The aim seems to be to suppress unrest, especially any inspired by some form of Islamic extremism.

A 2018 New York Times report from the city Hotan described checkpoints and police being stationed every few hundred yards as well as the presence of many surveillance cameras.[4] Surveillance cameras observe mosques, which people must register to enter. A piece for the Financial Times mentioned shuttered businesses and silent, deserted neighborhoods in the capital of Urumqi.[5]

Amnesty International interviewed more than 100 people, mostly ethnic Kazakhs, who had lost touch with relatives in Xinjiang. The interviews suggest a pattern of government detention. Contacts outside China, as well as Muslim religious practice, may prompt such repression. One official Chinese document lists 75 signs of “religious extremism,” such as praying in public outside mosques and suddenly giving up alcohol or smoking.[6]

Nurshat Mamish, who now lives in Kazakhstan, said that her son had called her from Xinjiang early in 2018 to say that he had been detained by the authorities. Later, after Mamish’s daughter had visited her in Kazakhstan and then returned to Xinjiang, her daughter disappeared.[7]

Syrlas Kalimkhan, a university student, traveled from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang with his parents in July 2017 to attend his brother’s wedding. At the border, Chinese authorities confiscated their passports. Kalimkhan remained in China for a month before being allowed to return to Kazakhstan. His parents were still held in China, however. Kalimkhan later learned from his mother that his father had been sent to a detention center.[8]

Zhazira Anuarbeki heard that her brother-in-law had been sent to a detention center in April 2017, supposedly for reading the Qur’an on his mobile phone. Later that year, her sister, Munira, came to visit her and their mother in Kazakhstan. Zhazira subsequently heard that her sister had been sent to a detention center several months after the visit. She also heard of a relative who is an imam being detained.[9]

Along with the stories of people who have lost touch with relatives are stories from those who report being detained in Xinjiang. Abdusalam Muhemet says he was held by the authorities for nine months because he read a Qur’an verse at a funeral. He recalled detention including mandatory singing of patriotic songs such as “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China,” hearing lectures on the evils of separatism and Islamic extremism, and writing self-critical essays. Muhemet comments, “In the end, all the officials had one key point…The greatness of the Chinese Communist Party, the backwardness of Uighur culture and the advanced nature of Chinese culture.”[10]

Kairat Samarkan, who is originally from Xinjiang, traveled back there from Kazakhstan in late 2017. He was held by police, who questioned him about his residence in another country, and he was eventually sent to a detention center. Activities in the center, Samarkan recounted, included singing propaganda songs, listening to government radio programs and being required to say “Long Live Xi Jinping” before eating. He also recounted being tortured, in part as punishment for his dual citizenship: Samarkan was fastened to an iron bar, being forced to stand straight with his arms extended. After a suicide attempt and hospitalization, he was eventually released and returned to Kazakhstan.[11]

The scale of imprisonment in detention centers is unclear. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, noted accounts of repression in Xinjiang, including reports of “the detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities, held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried” and observed that “Estimates of the number of people detained range from tens of thousands to over a million.”[12] Writing in 2017, Qiu Yuanyuan, a scholar at a Xinjiang training school for officials, made the notable warning that “Recklessly setting quantitative goals for transformation through education [that is, detention] has been erroneously used… The targeting is imprecise, and the scope has been expanding.”[13]

Population Control?

Some testimonies and documents indicate that the authorities are also subjecting minority women in Xinjiang to coercive forms of birth control, as well as sexual violence.

Rakhima Senbay says she was detained in Xinjiang in 2017 for having WhatsApp on her phone (as a messaging app with encryption, WhatsApp might look suspicious to authorities). During detention, a doctor fitted her with an intrauterine contraceptive device. Senbay comments, “I told her I didn’t want it, but she said it’s a must for all women going to the camp.”[14] The Associated Press interviewed seven people who said that while detained they received injections or were forced to take birth control pills. Women stopped getting their periods and some detainees, after release, discovered they were sterile.[15]

Ruqiye Perhat, a Uighur Islamic studies student who now lives in Turkey, says she was imprisoned for years following the 2009 riots. During her imprisonment, she reports being raped by the guards and twice becoming pregnant. She was forced to have an abortion both times.[16] Gulbahar Jelilova reports that women in the detention center where she was held were also forced to abort their children.[17]

Aiman Umarova, a Kazakh lawyer and human rights advocate, represents a woman who was twice forced to have abortions in Xinjiang. Umarova comments, “Sexually violating women, including stopping them from reproducing, has become a weapon for China against its Muslim population.”[18]

The Chinese government has a long history of coercive population control policies, and these reported incidents in Xinjiang may reflect the latest version of such policies. Officially people in Xinjiang, of whatever ethnicity, are allowed to have two children, if they live in urban areas, and three, if they live in rural areas.[19] The authorities may now be enforcing limits rigorously, to assert control over a restive population.

Adrian Zenz, a writer affiliated with the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, cites various documents that suggest a desire to curb births in the region. A 2015 Xinjiang government statement referred to how “religious extremism begets…illegal extra births.” A family planning speech made that same year included the comment that “de-extremification is an opportunity to eliminate the influence and interference of religion on family planning.”[20]

Ethnic minorities report attending group meetings where they were threatened with detention if they didn’t register all their children with authorities. Sometimes the meetings were followed by ultrasounds or gynecological exams for women attendees. Sixteen people interviewed by the Associated Press said they knew people detained for having too many children. Dina Nurdybay says that during her detention she heard a Uighur woman being made to confess publicly her “crime”: “I gave birth to too many children,” she said.[21]

These aspects of the repression seem to be having an effect. Statistical yearbooks indicate that birth rates have fallen in Xinjiang in recent years. Overall birth rates have fallen 24 percent in the region from 2017 to 2018 (compared to a 4.2 percent drop nationally), while birth rates in the primarily Uighur areas of Hotan and Kashgar fell more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2018.[22]

Spread the Word

For those concerned with justice and human rights, the situation in Xinjiang should elicit at least one clear response: make known to the world what is going on. Human rights advocates, journalists, and others should continue to report the stories of repression that have emerged from the region. They should provide platforms for refugees, especially those who have survived detention and coercive population control, so that their testimonies will be heard.  Whatever else we may or may not be able to do about the situation, we can make sure people know what is happening. Those currently suffering in Xinjiang deserve that much.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.


[1] Amnesty International, China: “Where Are They?” Time for Answers about Mass Detentions in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (London: Amnesty International, 2018), 4, available at https://bit.ly/3j0ZZJi; Emily Feng, “Crackdown in Xinjiang: Where Have All the People Gone?” Financial Times, August 5, 2018, https://on.ft.com/2FYJYVF.

[2] For more on the repression campaign, see my essay “Big Brother Is (Still) Watching You: The Xinjiang Crack-Down.”

[3] Chris Buckley, “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers. The Goal: ‘Transformation,’” New York Times, September 8, 2018, https://nyti.ms/35NHCUG.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Feng, “Crackdown in Xinjiang.”

[6] Amnesty International, China: “Where Are They?”, 15; Buckley, “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers.”

[7] Amnesty International, China: “Where Are They?”, 8.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 15.

[10] Buckley, “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers.”

[11] Amnesty International, China: “Where Are They?”, 14-15. I also mention Samarkan’s case in “Big Brother Is (Still) Watching You”; in that essay, he is referred to as “Kayrat Samarkand,” as that was how his name was rendered in a Washington Post story on repression in Xinjiang.

[12] United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “Concluding Observations on the Combined Fourteenth to Seventeenth Periodic Reports of China (Including Hong Kong, China and Macao, China)*,” September 19, 2018, https://bit.ly/2RHZgRB.

[13] Buckley, “China Is Detaining Muslims in Vast Numbers.”

[14] Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Abortions, IUDs and Sexual Humiliation: Muslim Women Who Fled China for Kazakhstan Recount Ordeals,” Washington Post, October 5, 2019, https://wapo.st/2FESSIq. See Amnesty International, China: “Where Are They?”, 16, on WhatsApp.

[15] “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization,” Associated Press, June 29, 2020, https://bit.ly/3hOcPtc.

[16] Ferris-Rotman, “Abortions, IUDs, and Sexual Humiliation.”

[17] “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization.”

[18] Ferris-Rotman, “Abortions, IUDs, and Sexual Humiliation.”

[19] “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization.”

[20] Adrian Zenz, Sterilizations, Forced Abortions, and Mandatory Birth Control: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birthrates in Xinjiang (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, 2020), 8, available at https://bit.ly/3chof7N.

[21] “China Cuts Uighur Births with IUDs, Abortion, Sterilization.”

[22] Ibid. This Associated Press article is somewhat unclear on the time range for the birth rate drops in Xinjiang versus China as a whole. The article refers to birth rates falling both in Xinjiang and nationwide “last year,” which would imply the decreases occurred in 2019. The accompanying figure and the time frame for the birth rate changes in Hotan and Kashgar suggest that available data goes up to only 2018, however. I have adopted the latter interpretation.

© 2020 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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